Renewables, Corporate Social Responsibility and Corporate Image
While a lot of the discussion around renewable energy at a commercial and domestic scale revolves around the costs and payback periods of installations, there are a number of what we call “co-benefits” in the trade relating to renewable energy installations. These are most noticeable at the commercial scale: not only do renewables assist in off-setting costs for the company, but the carbon emissions reductions from self-generating electricity from renewable energy sources are significant for large organisations, particularly in electricity-intensive industries.
So, what are the benefits of renewable energy for large companies? These can be split into a few categories: financial benefits, environmental benefits, and benefits in terms of CSR and image. This blog will focus specifically on the last category. Aside from the obvious financial benefits, a lot of this has to do with image and perception: the keyword there is “responsibility”. Installing a renewable energy system for the company shows a number of things to prospective clients: not only is the company interested in its climate impact, enough to take direct measures and invest in mitigating its own carbon emissions, but the company takes a long-term view of its business, enough to install a system with a lifetime of 25 or 30 years and operate it. This has an impact on the overall image of the company: it is perceived as “greener”, and more environmentally-responsible than competitors. In certain business sectors, such as environmental services, this could be a huge advantage.
Installing a renewable energy system can be used in a number of ways to boost the operations of a company from a business perspective. It provides a huge boost to marketing for example: images of solar installations and wind turbines on sunny days make for great front covers to brochures and website banners. Depending on the business sector, you can be seen to practice what you preach: if you’re involved in sustainability, committing to renewables as a company could provide the push to client perception needed to secure contracts. The statistics from a renewable energy system in terms of self-generation and particularly carbon offsetting can be used as a marketing tool also: being able to say you avoided emitting so-and-so-many tonnes of CO2 last year is a very powerful thing for public perception, particularly if put in easy-to-relate-to terms, such as removing a number of passenger vehicles from the road.
However, there is another side to this that needs to be avoided: the concept of “green-washing”. Deriving from white-washing, as in covering up mistakes, this has come to be used as a way of suggesting that companies are investing in sustainability efforts to cover up unsustainable practices, and that these sustainability efforts are vastly outdone by the environmentally-damaging core business of the company. The term is often used by activists to attack the efforts of major oil-producing companies such as Shell and BP for their burgeoning efforts in the renewable energy space, for example. There are a few dimensions to this that need to be examined: firstly, accountability. If a company is claiming that they’re being sustainable, is this verifiable? Can this be backed up with data? The Volkswagen emissions scandal in recent times has proven that sometimes companies are willing to “massage” the truth in order to appear more sustainable than they are. Data-based verification is pretty important as a method to combat this. Proportionality is fairly important also: in the oil giant example above, installing a few hundred kilowatts of solar isn’t going to offset the huge emissions of companies such as Shell. However, you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this case, and these companies have vast resources and a vested interest in moving their business models to something more sustainable. Recycling is another area where caution needs to be taken; saying that you’re sending waste off to be processed is not the same as ensuring that the waste is actually processed…this is a big issue with electronic waste, as well as domestic waste from developed countries to developing countries. Ensuring that the value chain of recycling streams is verified at all steps is a good first step to ensuring that the intended outcomes of recycling are realised.
So where does this leave us? Should companies avoid the concept of renewables or recycling of waste for fear of being labelled as liars or of greenwashing? Absolutely not. The key factor here is in the approach that is taken to implementing renewable energy or waste recycling as part of a wider corporate social responsibility strategy. These actions need to be taken in good faith for the benefits that they will bring, rather than as a tokenistic nod towards prevailing social trends. The clear benefits that implementing renewable electricity generation from a financial and environmental perspective provide a strong argument in themselves to engage in good faith, let alone the social benefits to image, perception and marketing prescribed above. There are a few factors to consider before integrating renewables into a corporate social responsibility strategy: would the proposed actions, such as the installation of a solar array on an office block, be proportional and useful to the company? What are the expected financial benefits and benefits in terms of carbon offsetting? Is this going to have an impact on the operations of the company in a positive way? In addition to this, assessing how the system could be used for its co-benefits could be the tipping point towards a decision. This blog has aimed to highlight some of those co-benefits, as well as some common pitfalls, to help with that decision.